Tag Archives: snobbery

On snobbery about content marketing and the John Lewis ad

Every so often there’s a backlash against ‘content’. It’s kind of boring because it’s not content’s fault.

Content is just content, it’s what fills the space.

It’s up to strategists, creatives, writers, film-makers to make it good.  And then of course, ‘good’ is subjective.

In the last couple of weeks, a new backlash has been gathering apace.

For example, Brent Smart of Saatchi in NYC said in the Drum

I hate the word ‘content’. It’s an excuse to make any old crap that we think the world needs, but in most cases the world doesn’t need more content. Just because you could make it doesn’t mean you should make it.

Most content is pollution. It’s a waste of people’s time; it’s interruption. And even though we have said we have moved from the interruption model, we are still trying to attract people, we’re just interrupting them in new and cunning ways. It’s still interrupting. It’s not stuff that is worthy of people’s time. Great content is, but most of it is shit.

P&G is not competing with Unilever, General Mills is not competing with Kellogg’s, and Wallmart is not competing with Target. We are competing with culture for people’s time and most of the stuff in culture is way more entertaining and useful than advertising. Advertising at its best can get into culture in many forms but at its worst it’s not even close. I hate that word!

And Richard Huntington also likened it to guano, saying:

And then all of a sudden, though I’m not entirely sure when, people started to use the word ‘content’ to mean something entirely different. They actually started to use it as a synonym for culture, for film and music and art and literature and photography and poetry. Anything that could be rendered in digital form, whatever its original name, now became content, just plain content. Even the BBC started to talk about cutting edge comedy, first run British drama or moments of sporting genius as mere ‘content’. In a staggering act of philistinism the infinite universe of culture was reduced to a limp and lifeless two-syllable label.

And then marketing got in on the act and clients decided that what they really wanted was ‘content’ and agencies started thinking that its would be a good idea to make it for them. Particularly those agencies that had been alienated by the quality standards implied by the monikers of film, drama, comedy and general awesomeness. If everything was simply content, to be ordered up by the yard or pound and in which quality was of no consequence then anyone could turn their hand to cranking out the stuff.

This is all true.  You can’t call Blackadder, Das Kapital or Match of the Day content. It’s sacreligious.  These things are not the same as the content we develop for marketing purposes.

There is a lot of crap content out there.   It’s written, repurposed, used as a filler.  Someone in the marketing team says, we need a page on our site about hammocks because our competitor has one, so one gets hurriedly written.  Someone in the digital marketing team says, we need more keywords in here, render this article dull please.  Someone at the agency says it would be good to make a video series.  Because they want to make a video series.

The crap is so voluminous, it’s giving good content – sorry Richard – good articles, films, podcasts, tools, quizzes, lists (I like lists) – it’s giving all the good stuff a bad name.  This is Huntington’s point.  I wholeheartedly agree.  And I feel dead inside when you hear ‘content’ in everyday parlance, when the BBC refers to it, when my mum says she’s trying to define what will be the most effective content of a get well soon card.  Actually she doesn’t do that.

The trouble is that many of us are engaged in developing content strategies and content marketing strategies because the good ones work.  And there can’t not be content (sorry, articles, films, podcasts, tools, lists, etc.)  When they are well planned, joined up stories across different channels, on and offline, they really do engage audiences and build brands, drive consumers towards conversion points and build links and so on.

So everyone’s in violent agreement that there’s a lot of dross out there on the internet, but there are good articles, films etc etc.  So what is the problem, really?

I think (and you can shoot me down, argue with me, diss me, whatever) that there’s a lot of snobbery around ‘marketing’.

I’ve come across this a few times.  Marketing is a dirty word.  It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s exploitative, it’s invasive.  (As well as a backlash against content, there’s also a backlash against data.  I’ll write about that in my next installment.)

Marketing thinks it can compete with culture.  That there are cases where consumers will prefer marketing content to the stuff that they choose to read/watch/play/do.  I say bullshit, there’s marketing content out there that serves a useful or entertaining purpose, but the rest of it is there to do its job.  And marketing should get over itself.

There are marketers out there who don’t think they are marketers.  They believe they have a higher purpose, they believe they are changing lives, improving lives.  With their films, their widgets, their tools, their whatevers.  I’m not sure how they would label themselves but if they have a target of any kind, they are marketers, whether they like it or not.

Someone said recently that you couldn’t call the new John Lewis ad ‘content’.  It is too high quality a film, a form of storytelling.  It makes people cry.  This is a form of marketing that is held up so high that there have been rhapsodies written about it all over the industry, particularly since it is linked to the Age UK charity.  Alternatively, you could see it as the cynical commodification of loneliness to sell more stuff.

Everyone who watches it on YouTube – 11 million views so far, wow, will watch it once or twice and then forget about it, move on to the next thing. Does this change culture or does this make other advertising agencies jealous?  Is it even content, or is it just an ad?

Good marketers – and alongside this the good forms of content – create good experiences for consumers.  They don’t clutter the experience with the unnecessary, they provide useful, beautiful, entertaining routes in to the things consumers are searching for, either actively or passively.

Good marketers – and good content (and IMO the John Lewis ad is way up there, cynical marketing ploy notwithstanding) – make the web a better place to hang out, to do business, to plan your life, to buy stuff.

Good marketers create content to build stories and experiences around insight, real human insight from a variety of sources.  Personally I prefer qual, talking to real people in real life and understanding their true motivations, what will move them emotionally.  Thinking about how to weave that emotion into the brand story.  But it’s always important to back that up with data, since we all have targets we need to meet.

I need to stop writing now.  Suffice to say, I will be happy when the content backlash calms down a bit, and we can all go back to planning necessary pages, articles, films, tools, widgets, and whatever for our clients, supporting their consumers as they navigate their way to the answers that suit them.

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What’s it like doing strategy in Glasgow?

I’ve been inspired to write about what it’s like to be a planner in Scotland by Northern Planner’s post about being a strategist in the North.  I was also asked to guest blog about it earlier in the year by Simon Hopkins and totally failed to do anything about it.

My excuse?  Well, I have been very busy lately, with work and parenting and house tidying and so on.  But something else was holding me back which I can only really say was a bit of a stubborn chip on my shoulder which I have recently shed and which means I am embracing being a Scottish strategist with gusto.  I might write about that in another post, it’s quite an epiphany.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Northern’s post because it was positive on the whole and I nodded my head vehemently at many of his points, e.g.

While there are less big TV campaigns, there are lots of really interesting, more integrated projects. You’ll need to be good at getting how channels fit together and creating strategic platforms for IDEAS, rather than advertising ideas.

This is totally true.  I moved up here and had to get good at ‘digital’ and then found that digital was actually everything except big TV campaigns, which I’m actually not that bothered about anymore.  Doing content, brand, and UX and comms strategy is very satisfying, particularly when you know it’s being rolled out nationally, internationally.  You also know that at least half of what you do is actually useful to people and you can measure the impact it has on your client’s business.  It means, as Northern says, you don’t think in silos and you get a chance to change how your clients do business and not just think about their communications.

You’ll have to prove yourself. More than someone about from around here. No one will take your word for it about anything. But good places will give the chance.

This is the truest thing. You do have to prove yourself.  I failed to prove the value of strategy at three Scottish agencies before I started work at Equator and by jove I have worked hard to prove it at Equator too.  Still am.  I’m in no danger of getting complacent or too big for my boots.

Northern mentions a ‘lack of sophistication’ which I feel is more a reluctance to intellectualise in the same way as the Oxbridge graduates I felt inferior to back in the Big Smoke, and both Scottish agency people and clients are reluctant to disappear up their own arses when it comes to talking about work – they just want to ‘get it done’ a lot of the time, and they want to know what they are paying for.  Which is fair enough.  I’m working towards a nice balance of thinking and talking more about the important stuff and then getting down to making nice work.

I am sure that in the 7 years I’ve been back up north people have thought I’m a terrible snob about what I do and I’m a right pain in the bum a lot of the time because I keep asking ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘Why would the target audience care about that?’ and ‘Can we just start using the language of brands for a change?’ but it’s more that I am trying to keep the principles of what I do secure and not waver from what I believe to be the right way to do things.  I’m driven to do things properly.  Because it’s fun and I think it leads to better work.

In 7 years I’ve barely worked with anyone who’s experienced life in a London advertising agency and this means that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people without this frame of reference that ‘my way’ is the right way.  When what they’d been doing until I came along was working pretty well and all I did was annoy them and criticise them.

4 years ago a ‘good place’ did give me a chance and I’m still there, now with a 5-strong strategy team, which consists of people who weren’t planners when they joined but had the transferable skills to become planners.  In training them Equator now has a lovely diverse group of strategists who want to find out what the client’s objectives are before defining the solution, think deeply about user behaviour and collaborate with our designers, creatives and marketing specialists to develop joined-up routes to transforming our clients’ businesses.

I hope you can tell, I’m very proud of them.

One thing I don’t think I agree with Northern on is this:

What you need to prepared for, in general, in the creative side of things at least, is that you just won’t get the same kind of clients and do the same kind of work.

Now…  This is a really big misconception a lot of London types have.  It depends what agency you work at.  Work is what you make it and we beat big London agencies in pitches quite often, and a lot of our business is outside of Scotland.  Geography is a bit irrelevant.  There are some fantastic creative and strategic minds up here – the fact that we’re fewer in numbers could mean that we’re easier to find.  And we are all seasoned Easyjetters – we see our clients wherever they want to see us.

On the whole, being a strategist in Glasgow is great and I don’t think I’d want to work anywhere else now.  (Never say never obviously.)  Glasgow is known for its cool music and arts scene, it feels like things are happening here.  Being here means you have a 12 minute cycle to work, you can buy a nice flat or house near your friends and the centre of town, mountains and things are about an hour away, you get to work with nice people who want to make good, effective products and content real people want to engage with.

This year there’s been a feeling that it’s the best place to be – the summer was very exciting. And the winter ain’t that bad.  Just take vitamin D supplements and have a nice walk along the Clyde at lunchtime.

If you’re thinking of a move up north, we’d love to have you.  Look! A vacancy with your name on it.

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